LN translation is in a similar place fansubbing was in before Crunchyroll and other forms of legal streaming came along. There aren’t too many light novels officially translated into English, and many series are out of print and discontinued. As a fan translator, I do my part in making Japanese LNs available in English, but I know that what I’m doing is actually illegal. But in many ways, it really can’t be helped, at least for now.
The good news is that the situation is changing, little by little. With more LNs being adapted into anime than ever before, people are taking notice of LNs (for better and for worse). Yen Press has recently licensed the guaranteed cash cow known as Sword Art Online, with other popular LNs like Kagerou Daze on the way. And with the shift from print books to Ebooks, LNs have a better chance of finding exposure at a cheaper price. The digital revolution has opened up possibilities for every literary subgenre imaginable, so it’s not as if there is no market for LNs, even if they will remain niche for the foreseeable future.
Beyond translated LNs, there’s another type of English light novel, one that’s been eking out a humble living in the dark corners of the internet up until now: original English light novels, written by English-speaking anime fans. It’s this kind of LN I’ll be focusing on today.
Original English Light Novels? Are they even a thing?
They are, but you probably wouldn’t know how much they’ve caught on unless you’re invested in the English-speaking LN community. Baka-Tsuki, for instance, hosts a handful of original novels. Original English light novels (which I’ll just refer to as OELN from now on) are very similar to fanfiction in the way they’re written and consumed. Their readership consists almost exclusively of English-translated LN readers, with the key difference being that the stories aren’t based directly off the LNs that have inspired their creation.
As a matter of fact, my own friends have expressed interest in writing OELNs. One friend of mine has been writing a story quite a lot like Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei – it features a technologised magic system set in a high school, except with heavy gamer influences. Reading the story, I was struck by how much it resembled a fanfiction. It was very much a work of pastiche, with LN cliches and otaku tropes being cut and pasted into the narrative ad hoc. Every couple of sentences the narrative made way for a friendly exposition dump. I was told that this was deliberate – my friend was trying to replicate the tone and feel of an LN. This really says a lot about what LN readers perceive the LN “genre” to be about.
Indeed, there’s a lot of confusion about what does and what doesn’t constitute an LN. What’s the difference between light novel and teen lit? Are recognisable “anime-like” tropes necessary? Honestly, not really – LNs encompass a broad range of genres beyond just fantasy and harems.
But there are recognisable industry trends, especially among titles that spawn multimedia franchises, and it’s no surprise fans have identified with those common elements. Some stories like SAO and Mahouka did start off as web novels, which explains their extremely indulgent storytelling. And LNs are notorious for being mass-produced and authored by smelly otaku who don’t know how to write. LNs even make fun of themselves for being like this.
Ultimately, LN-writing is a form of self-indulgence, no matter what language you’re doing it in. I suppose every LN fan has a “pet project” they’re working on, whether it’s on paper or in their heads. Actually, the majority of OELNs I’ve come across are fantasy ones, making them no different in spirit from the video game/Tolkein-inspired EPIC FANTASY TRILOGIES I used to write in high school, only to get bored after two chapters.
Do OELNs have the potential to sell?
The fantasy ones, maybe. Besides basic grammar and style issues, I don’t think amateur writing is a deterrent to commercial success. Fanfic writers can and do turn pro, as the very existence of 50 Shades of Gray proves. And fantasy is arguably the most accessible genre in anime for non-anime fans, making chuuni LNs fairly easy to digest even for a non-anime literate audience.
(Male-targeted incest romcoms probably won’t sell… but no one seems to write that stuff in English except for me, so um yeah. Let’s move on.)
Since they’re not translations, OELNs are by nature a bit more in touch with English literary style and convention. You can actually spot the hybrid influence of “translationese” (i.e. Engrish) and “proper” prose. And in terms of the plots themselves, the lack of censoring and commercial factors has given authors free reign. So sometimes I do get pleasantly surprised by plot events that probably wouldn’t happen in a Japanese LN. Even amateurs have their sparks of creativity and occasional brilliance, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from being invested in fanfic culture for so many years, it’s not to underestimate the passion and wit of amateur writers. So I do think OELNs have the potential to appeal to a wider crowd than who they’re currently written for.
But this is all theoretically speaking because a couple of things need to happen first. Firstly, more people need to start writing OELNs and publish them. The fandom needs to get bigger and more systematised. There should be a legit, specialised website dedicated to hosting OELNs, and I’m not talking about Wattpad or FictionPress. Also, more serious OELN writers need to take that step into publishing for money, even if it’s just self-publishing through Ebooks.
The standard of writing also needs to improve. This is where I’d point to my guide on how to write LNs, but there are certain sections of that post that are seriously outdated. In any case, I encourage prospective LN writers to read widely. Don’t just read translated LNs and expect your prose to be marketable. Read classics, read different genres, read whatever you can get your hands on. Only good readers can ever be good writers.
Any OELNs you recommend, Froggy?
Glad you asked! There are two OELNs I really enjoyed and both of them can be found on Baka-Tsuki.
The first is The Longing of Shiina Ryo. As the title suggests, it’s very strongly influenced by The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, both in form and in contact. It’s one of those quintessentially “meta” LNs that’s constantly navel-gazing and making self-conscious observations about the nature of storytelling. Like, there’s one part at the beginning of the novel where the MC launches into flowery descriptions of a beautiful girl he bumps into, and then states matter-of-factly “I never saw her again. … That was the shipwreck of our romance, I suppose: the fact that it never happened. I believe they call this tragedy. Back to the story.” Very cute.
Honestly, it is a bit too self-consciously witty and referential for me to fully endorse it, which is probably the reason why I never really got into the Haruhi LNs, come to think of it. But it’s very good for what it is. The writing style is strong and confident and I can hear the narrator’s voice, which is a lot more than I can say for many LN translations.
The other OELN I like is Daybreak on Hyperion. This one’s a standard high fantasy story with a genderbender theme – and despite being very iffy about the “reverse Zero no Tsukaima” premise, I was surprised by how intelligent every character was. No one did stupid things for the sake of the plot and the genderbending aspect was handled with dignity and insight. There are still a few self-conscious winks to the audiences in this story too, like the reference to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but I lol’ed, so all was good.
The reason I thought these two OELNs succeeded as literature is because they weren’t afraid to dig outside of otaku culture for their influences. Shiina Ryo drew from the internet and TV Tropes culture, while Hyperion drew from an academic understanding of alternate history. As an academic who took a minor in history, the latter strongly appealed to me. I guess you could even say that it pandered to me (HAHA see what I did there?). I usually find high fantasy boring, but I found myself getting absorbed by Hyperion’s worldbuilding and finished the first volume in a couple of sittings. So I would consider it my favourite OELN for now.
I’d like to see this part of the fandom grow. Honestly, my favourite LN genre is the harem romcom, as you might be able to see from my choice in translation, but I understand that I have very unique tastes. I wish more people would write trashy imouto wincest stories, but you can’t have everything I guess. If anyone’s writing an LN and you’re confident your writing won’t burn my eyes, please do tell me about it!
And if you had zero interest in OELNs before reading this, I hope this could have sparked at least some of the potential of the subgenre, which I suspect can only grow from here.